Three lessons from the Daily Mail about creating ridiculously engaging content

Spend 5 minutes on the Daily Mail and you’ll soon realise that engaging content has absolutely nothing to do with good journalism.

To be clear on this, let’s break down how we calculate engagement:

  • The clicks an article receives when distributed
  • Multiplied by page views
  • Multiplied by social shares

That’s engagement. Everything else is a distraction.

In fact, before we go any further let’s get something straight; this blog post is not going to make you a better writer. If anything it’s going to make you a worse writer. You’ll become cynical and lazy and soon feel bereft of any purpose in life (at least that’s how I imagine a journalist at the Daily Mail feels). But your content will be engaged, and for the purposes of this post I’m assuming that’s your goal.

Step 1 – clicks

First we need to look at where these clicks are coming from. Each month the Daily Mail does about a quarter of a billion visits. In other words, sh*t loads. The break down is approximately:

  • 30% direct
  • 35% search
  • 15% social (mostly Facebook)
  • 16% referral

A proportion are from direct visitors actively seeking to waste away a few minutes of their lives, but the majority stumble across the Daily Mail while doing other stuff. Or more precisely, they stumble across a Daily Mail headline.

The Daily Mail headline is a gloriously revolting thing. One of the search queries that’s been generating lots of traffic to the site recently is “Renee Zellweger”. So I googled Renee Zellweger and immediately it all made sense. At number 1 spot was the Daily Mail and this was the headline:

“What HAS Renee Zellweger done to her face?!”

But it’s not only monstrously insulting headlines that the Daily Mail has mastered. To appreciate their true genius you need to look at the more mundane end of the story spectrum. I stumbled across this gem a few days ago via Facebook:

“Robert Downey Junior Holds Receipt In Mouth While Carrying Three Heavy Shopping Bags”

Even now it blows me away. This is literally the most boring thing that has ever happened to anyone ever. And yet the ridiculously specific nature of the headline gave me no choice but to click and see if it was true – was Robert Downey Junior REALLY holding a receipt in his mouth while carrying three heavy shopping bags?? For a moment all meaning and logic fell apart. Nothing made sense. All I knew was that I had click and read this full nothingness in its entirety, desperately hoping that it came with pictures.

Something else that you’ll notice about a lot of Daily Mail headlines is how long they are, which contradicts conventional “short and snappy” wisdom. Some examples:

  • Google scraps ‘boring’ plans for London HQ: Internet giant’s boss Larry Page orders architects to design building worthy of standing for 100 years
  • Miliband was ‘personally horrid to me’, Cameron complains after being branded ‘rotten’ in volley of abuse during PMQs
  • ‘I’ve ruined my looks’: TOWIE star Abi Clarke admits pressure to look glamorous drove her to have lip filler treatment that left her with painful trout pout

But if you look a little closer you’ll notice that actually they adhere to the “short and snappy” rule perfectly. Within the first 4 to 7 words they’ve hooked you in. It’s just that they made it so short and snappy that without further context they wouldn’t actually make sense.

In summary, no matter what the subject, there is no excuse for a boring headline. Be specific, be bold and strike a balance between detail and ambiguity to entice the user into making that all important click.

Step 2 – page views:

Okay, so they’ve come through to your article and no doubt they’re a little disappointed by what they’ve found, but no matter, because now you’re going to trick them into making the same mistake all over again.

Here’s how:

  • Surround every story with links to similar stories. Both to the right and underneath. The ones to the right should always be in view so if you don’t have enough content to fill the entire sidebar then the content needs to automatically scroll up and down with the user.
  • It needs to stand out. Make the text bold and ideally have it highlight in a nasty, garish colour when you hover over.
  • Make sure the headings are pure clickbait (see step 1)

Step 3 – shares:

The final step is social sharing. Presumably these idiots (of whom I am one) have idiot friends who would also jump at the chance to kill the next 30 seconds of their lives, so the next step is to convince the reader that they should be sharing it far and wide.

Here’s the thing about social sharing; people are far more likely to share something that’s already been shared. Nobody wants to go first. It makes them think that the content can’t be all that good and their friends are (rightly) going to think they’re a moron. This presents an obvious catch 22 for publishers. But there is a way around this… You must have a large social share counter that combines all of the shares together. Think about it, even if just you and 5 mates send it via each of your platforms (let’s assume 4), that’s 24 shares instantly. 24 is starting to look pretty credible right?

Final note:

I want to reiterate that while I admire the marketing talents of the Daily Mail (and the same could be said for Buzzfeed, the Daily Dot, etc) this is absolutely not good journalism and if your goal is to be considered an authority in your field you need to combine the rules above with content that actually deserves to be read. That second part, however, is your problem.

Good luck!


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